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Fall 2000: "The Trouble With Normal"

The Trouble With Normal answers the burning question: Can a paranoid guy find happiness with his paranoid friend and their paranoid neighbor? And their paranoid neighbor's paranoid friend? And a therapist, who (if you don't mind a personal opinion) doesn't seem to know what she's doing? (Oh, and she has a boyfriend who likes to barge in on therapy sessions, which doesn't seem like it would be AMA-approved. Especially the way he does everything but make "koo-koo! koo-koo!" noises.)

A half-hour of paranoiacs, an insecure therapist, and her jerk boyfriend? Sign me up! I mean, who wouldn't want to spend their evenings laughing at seriously mentally ill people? It's not like there isn't a rich history of entertainingly deranged people in prime time, you know.

But that's the problem. As far as derangements go, paranoia just isn't that cinematic. Or funny. It's one thing to be convinced that there are purple monkeys living in your car's glove compartment. That can lead to all sorts of, I don't know, purple monkey jokes. Multiple Personality Disorder is a natural for a show starring some young Jim Carrey-wannabe. And what was Robin Williams doing in Mork and Mindy if not giving us a stark and tragic portrait of manic-depression in aliens?

But paranoia generally manifests itself as huddling in a corner, hoping that you can't be seen. At least in The Trouble With Normal it does. These aren't the kind of loons that make web pages about the CIA Automatic Mind Control Hypno-Rays; these are the kind of loons that, er, stand around and whine to each other. I guess.

The two main paranoiacs are Bob (played by David Krumholtz) and Zach (played by Jon Cryer). Bob is a quiet, cringing kind of guy. Zach is a jumpy, energetic Jon Cryer character. It's a shame that Bob appears to be the main character, since Zach is a lot more fun to watch. When someone says "Shh!" and everyone freezes (this happens a lot in shows about paranoia), Bob just freezes, looking scared. So does Zach, but at least his eyes bounce back and forth a lot.

By the way, if you haven't figured it out yet, when a review is reduced to praising Jon Cryer's bouncy eyeballs, that means there isn't much else to like.

Bob and Zach both have wacky sidekicks. Bob's is named Max, and he's a tall slow guy. Zach's is named Stansfield, and he's a fat dumb guy. Stansfield is even wackier than Zach. So to recap: Bob and Max, who are quiet and slow, are our two main paranoiacs. The emergency backup paranoiacs, who tragically get less screen time, are Zach and Stansfield, and are jumpy and dumb.

There's also a therapist, named Claire, who is insecure. That's all. Just insecure. She has a boyfriend named Jackson, who's a jerk. I know I mentioned them earlier in almost the same words, but that's pretty much it for them. One scene ends with Claire leaning against a door, wondering if she'll ever be able to bring sanity to these poor people. And they fade out. Whoo! What a punch line that scene had!

That was the scene just before the closing credits, too.

Now that it's the year 2000 (you might have read something about this in the newspaper), it's to be expected that sitcoms are reaching for new situations from which to wring comedy. And what could be more twenty-first century than mistrust? We've got two shows (Dark Angel and Freedom) set in vaguely post-apocalyptic/totalitarian futures, so why not have a show based in today's world, starring the sort of character that believes we're already in a dark, totalitarian future?

Well, for one thing, these guys (and I don't think we actually need all four of them) don't have the courage of their lunacy. The whole reason that Claire is in the show, aside from the requirement for sex jokes, is because all four of the guys are in therapy. So they're paranoid, but they feel bad about it. They're trying to get over their irrational fears. This, of course, is a laudable goal, but what happens to the show if they succeed? The only thing the show has going for it now is the paranoia; if the main characters get over it, all we're left with is a quiet guy, a slow guy, a dumb guy, and a jumpy guy.

The therapy sessions have extra characters, because The Bob Newhart Show showed us decades ago that therapy sessions can be funny. Of course, those therapy sessions had Bob Newhart in them, which is just one of the missing ingredients here. Another difference is that in The Bob Newhart Show, the patients never seemed all that interested in getting over their problems. They just came on screen, acted out their hilarious dysfunctionalities, and got out. It's no surprise that The Trouble With Normal's therapy sessions aren't as funny as The Bob Newhart Show's. But it's a little disappointing that they couldn't be as funny as, say, the sessions from the Judd Hirsch vehicle Dear John.

In theory, I could wait for future episodes before I criticize the show's prospects for long-term success. But I've carefully considered my options, and I believe that a sudden rush to judgement would be the correct action. So here goes: I don't see how they expect a show based around a quiet guy and his quiet friend and their quiet therapist to be successful, paranoia or no. It's not the first time that the wacky neighbor has been more entertaining than the putative star, but it is the first time I can remember that the wacky neighbor's wacky sidekick is funnier than the main character. When the jerk boyfriend turns out to be working for the government and is really spying on them, well, don't expect me to drop my pants in shock.


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